miércoles, 27 de julio de 2011

Summer Update: Gringo in China

I'm sure my loyal following (hi mom) is very upset that I haven't posted in a while, but I've been keeping pretty busy with work and life and such. And during the first few weeks in China, I couldn't even get on blogspot thanks to restricted internet.

China is really something quite different. I'll admit to suffering some culture shock when I first arrived - though going from Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica to Beijing, China is about as different as two cultures can get I think. Far from the laid back Costa Rican hanging out in the jungle/on the beach way of life, life in Beijing is fast paced, crowded, loud and smoggy. A phrase I have heard used to describe the city in the past is really quite true - well ordered chaos. The traffic is more terrifying than in Costa Rica, but somehow I have more confidence that I won't fall victim to it here. Taxi cabs are amazing at swerving just in time, just in the right way. Bicycles and electric scooters abound and intermix with the traffic, though I have witnessed one bike/car accident in person (did not end well for the cyclist). I thought about buying a cheap bike when I first got here, but at this point I'll be leaving in a couple of weeks, and, I'm not sure I have the precision necessary to navigate the traffic.

The subway here is quite an experience. I live in the Jinsong neighborhood, in this building:

which is in the southern Chaoyang District only a few subway stops south of the Central Business District where I work. The advantage is that I'm on line 10, one of the new subway lines built for the Olympics in 2008 (more on Olympic spirit in a sec). But line 10 is lovely, it's air conditioned, the cars are tall, roomy and well lit, it's rarely too crowded (by Beijing standards at least). Compare that to line 1, one of the original lines. Line 1 is completely packed, at any hour of the day. If you value your personal bubble, you're probably better off taking a cab, but if you're ready to get to know about 200 people really well, it's always an adventure. (And all subway rides are only 2 kuai...about 30 cents.) During my first week in Beijing, I took line 1 with a friend at rush hour...when I hesitated to get on the completely packed train, he just said "let's go" and shoved me into the mass of people already inside. Being shoved into other people is totally normal, apparently and being in complete contact with total strangers is quite acceptable. In addition to that, the cars on line 1 are shorter...and the door sill is about forehead height for me. I provoked some laughter when I turned and whacked my head squarely on the top of the door frame getting off the train. (I'm huge in China.)

Anyway, as you may remember, the Olympics came to Beijing in 2008. There is still a lot of Olympic pride here - everywhere you go there are still "Beijing 2008" banners and signs complete with the dancing Beijing logo. I went to see the birds nest, it's pretty awesome. The olympic grounds are really spread out though, not terribly walkable. But I went past the Olympic Village too, one of the first LEED for Neighborhood Development projects anywhere in the world. It received a gold rating at the time, though based on some post construction modifications that some residents made (ie installing split unit air conditioners that are obviously add ons) I wonder if it still performs to spec.

Speaking of LEED certified buildings, I work in Prosper Center, the first LEED certified building in China. It ranked LEED Gold, though I really question how - given the complete lack of attention to water conservation and some serious questions about how energy efficient the windows and lighting systems in common areas are. But here it is:

Energy efficiency, something that I'm always in favor of, is exceptionally important here given the conventional coal power generation and lack of pollution control. The air quality has only been in the "good" range on a handful of days, and sometimes I think I've forgotten what blue sky looks like. It's not that it's overcast - it's just that smoggy. The sun is visible through the smog, but just barely. It's really quite eerie. The buildings disappear in every direction into the carcinogenic mist, I tend to judge whether I want to go outside or not based on how many buildings I can see from our 19th story office. And then to round it out, sometimes we have fantastically violent thunderstorms. Though unlike in Colorado, where you pray for rain because of how arid it is, you pray for rain here because it washes the air. Rumor has it that the government seeds the clouds before major events to guarantee blue sky for photo opportunities. (I have some pictures of smoggy days on my camera I haven't uploaded yet, I'll share those later.) But whether it's smog or fantastic thunderstorm, I'm pretty sure that whoever wrote the Matrix was inspired by Beijing in the summer.

If you want to know how many months I'm taking off of my life by breathing, check out this link: http://iphone.bjair.info/ for current Beijing air quality. As of this writing, we're only in the "very unhealthy for all groups: everyone may experience serious side effects" band. As opposed to "Hazardous" where you're better off seeing how not breathing treats you. (It was that way all of last weekend.)

So, if you meet any tea partiers who want to gut the epa, kindly remind them that breathing is awesome.

Also awesome is drinkable tap water, something Beijing is a little lacking in. I know people who have consumed it, seemingly without ill effect, but the general consensus is that it isn't a great idea. The government does maintain that the water leaving the distribution plants is drinkable, however, the infrastructure is old and carried non-potable water for a long time. That and, the river from which the city's water comes has a lot of industrial development and manufacturing along it. I don't know about you, but I don't really like cadmium in my coffee.

Bottled water is cheap and readily available though, so it's no biggie.

Anyway, I have been pretty busy with work. I'm working on a joint US/China project involving green building and building labeling. Specifically, I'm writing a white paper comparing LEED in the US to China's 3 Star Sustainability Rating System, and working on a bunch of other side projects. But work is boring to blog about. Since I'm a nerd though I'm always happy to discuss it, if you want to know more about the China Sustainable Cities project here, just ask.

But, I have had some time for adventure fortunately. I have seen a lot of the typical Beijing sites: The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven and then I took an awesome day trip out of Beijing to do a 14km hike on an unrestored section of the great wall. The "Wild Wall" hike has really been the highlight of my summer so far. Being a tourist is kind of funny though, because while Chinese people from Beijing are pretty used to "foreigners" (as we're collectively known) people from other parts of China are not. I've had my photo taken with random people at their request because I look funny. But, as far as my tourism experiences go, here are a few photos:

Forbidden City:

Wild wall hike:

Tiananmen Square:

There are a bunch more photos available on facebook if you feel like perusing them. All in all, the adventure has been great, and it continues! It is hard to imagine that in less than a month I'll be back in Costa Rica...which seems a million miles away at the moment. (Merely about 9,000.) (And, does anyone know whether airports will still operate if the government shuts down? If so, at least there are a few airlines that can get me there without going through the US.)

This weekend I am going to the Bashang Grasslands to do a several day hike, staying in guesthouses and seeing small villages and some beautiful terrain. Oh and breathing cleaner air, which will be great. More on that to follow.

(Google translate tells me that's "pura vida" in Chinese. Hopefully it's not actually something offensive.)

jueves, 28 de abril de 2011

The Adventure Continues...

I am fortunate to have finally figured out what I am going to be doing for the summer: Going to China!! Plane tickets are booked...still trying to figure out a place to live though. (If any of you have any suggestions I'd be very open to them...) Yes, it means I will not be in Colorado for the summer, which is personally disappointing as I was really looking forward to some time enjoying the Rocky Mountain high and checking a few more 14ers off the list. But I doubt the 14ers are going anywhere, so I will just have to make progress on that life goal a little bit later.

I have been very fortunate to get the opportunity to work for the Natural Resources Defense Council in their Beijing office on low carbon buildings. I'm specifically going to be developing a set of policy and practice guidelines to encourage low carbon light industrial and commercial development that also encourages economic growth. Classic systems thinking/ecological design problem - how do we maximize all benefits while minimizing negative externalities and are there perhaps some new synergies that will make low carbon construction in this context even better than conventional would be? Hopefully so.

On a more cultural note though, I really feel as if I've gotten the hang of this whole Costa Rica thing. My Spanish has come along to a point where I finally feel comfortable navigating just about any situation solo with less pointing and gesturing. So, I get comfortable in Costa Rica just in time to take off for a far more foreign destination...but hey at least the year of adventure is continuing! I'll admit to being torn between excitement and anxiety, but fortunate excitement is winning out. But the plane tickets are booked (direct flight from DC to Beijing...14 hours) so I suppose that is that.

Any travel tips for China are welcome though!

jueves, 14 de abril de 2011

They actually did it...

So, brief blog entry this time...

I just spent the night at the Pura Vida Hotel in Alajuela with Mom, Robert and Kathy and I met people who are living the liberal Estadoundidense dream - they expatriated while Bush was president because they were sick of the toxic political climate and embarrassed by the actions of the United States. So they opened a gorgeous hotel in the mountains here that is striving for environmental sustainability (and doing a pretty good job - complete recycling, local foods, high efficiency everything with carbon offsets purchased to make up the difference - very nice).

But, who wants to start an "I Believe in America" campaign to play off of Obama's speech from the other day?

domingo, 27 de marzo de 2011

Thieves, pirates, hookers and blow: Morgan's month of adventure

Full disclaimer, I did not steal anything, commandeer any vessels, solicit any prostitutes or do any cocaine, but, if I had wanted to, I would have had the opportunity to this past month.

The month started back in Montezuma when Meredith came to visit. While the week did not go entirely as planned...the cabina we rented was much farther from the ocean than represented to us and it turns out that not leaving anything of value in a rental car is actually very good advice (hence the thieves)...we did spend it exploring a variety of beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula, many of which were fantastic. Mal Pais may be the most beautiful beach I have
ever seen. Check out some pics here:

And of course, the self portrait:

Anyway, after a great beach filled week (and a harrowing race to the airport which involved getting lost twice and then going on an adventure to return the rental car) Meredith departed and I had four days of good health and relaxation at home.

Ok that's a total lie. Mike Jozwik's birthday was in the middle of that little break and needless to say, that got interesting. We had a reup of the fiesta saturday...involving bloody marys, a big breakfast and a hike to the mirador above campus. (Which always seems like a better idea while drinking the bloody marys than it does when you're about halfway to the top of the mountain after having several.)

Anyway, after those silly few days, I found myself striking out solo for Puerto Quepos...my first solo public transit experience in Costa Rica. Other than taking the "collectivo" (which apparently is Costa Rican Spanish for "Stop every 150 feet between San Jose and Quepos and collect everyone in the country.") the trip was fairly uneventful. Not even a good sketchy story in San Jose. Sorry about that. Moving on...

My first few days in Quepos were solo and it is a really fun town. I took some spanish classes at Escuela El Paraiso just outside of town and had my own little cabina in the jungle. Other than finding a poison dart frog on my door sill one morning, it was a great place to stay.

Photo of the interior (totally forgot to take one of the exterior):

But if there is one thing to say about Quepos, it is the hottest place I think I have ever spent time. I mean, I can not come up with a sarcastic analogy adequate to communicating the level of sticky heat that I enjoyed there. Some common ones have included "collectivo apparently means 'to the sun'" and "I didn't realize I lived in a humidifier." (Once again, turns out the rainforest is moist.

Traveling in Quepos solo was interesting though, largely because of the number of different impressions a solo gringo must make on people. I was offered cocaine 5 times in my first evening and solicited by two prostitutes while sitting at a bar eating and having a Coors Light (never thought a cold silver bullet would taste so good).

But in addition to that excitement, turns out Quepos and Manuel Antonio are the gay beaches here in Costa Rica, and, the cabina I was staying in was conveniently right near a gay bar. (Yes, I swear it was a TOTAL coincidence.) So, of course, I made sure to take advantage of that. I saw my first tico drag queen (tica?) and while she didn't have anything on Shanida, she was pretty fierce.

Anyway, in addition to that I decided to give surfing a go. My instructor was a 20 year old tico kid named Gilbert whose english was about on par with my spanish which made the lesson interesting. I'm not sure whether it was the language barrier or the 5 foot waves, but I got wrecked. Based on his face after a few, I'm pretty sure I was talked about around the shop afterwords.

Cool story in Manuel Antonio though, there is a bar/restaurant called El Avion where we caught several sunsets during the last few days the whole group was in town. What makes it interesting, in addition to being high on a cliff above the ocean with a spectacular view, is the fact that it is built around the wreckage of a Fairchild C-123 that was shot down over Nicaragua during that whole Iran Contra nastiness. (Wait, Reagan was the best president ever who can do no wrong, right? He deserves an airport?)

Jozwik and I as pilots:

And the entrance to the place:

Actually I have found the dynamic here to be interesting. It's not overtly anti United States at all, but, there are many subtle anti United States themes. On the other hand, it's honestly surprising they like us as much as they do...given the whole banana republic thing. (Next time you buy pineapples or bananas, check out where they came from...) But, this entire restaurant is a fairly overt criticism of, well, us. And, the Costa Rican national hero, Juan Santamaria, is a hero because he led the army that repelled US mercenaries (see, Blackwater isn't a new concept) intent on colonizing Central America so that they could be slave holding states. (Look up William Walker...ancestor of George Walker Bush. Shocker.)

Anyway, one final anecdote to share and then I'll finally finish my first blog entry in a month. Those of you who have traveled in Central America are familiar with the buses here...and Costa Rica is no exception. The most recent "well that wasn't the most dangerous thing I've ever experienced, but it's on the list" moment came one night on a bus between Manuel Antonio and Quepos. Basically, after stopping on an uphill incline, the driver stalls the bus out. Now, before I continue, let me set the scene: It's night, the bus is most of the way up a hill. At the bottom of said hill is a cliff (there's a bend in the road). There are no street lights. The bus has about 50 people one it and I'm standing down in the rear door well. So anyway, driver stalls the bus out. After trying to restart, the engine gives two cranks, the battery dies and all of the lights turn out...then just because things weren't interesting enough, we start rolling backwards. As we pick up speed, the driver starts trying to pop the clutch to get the darn thing to start.

I did not realize that you could start a diesel by popping the clutch, especially not in reverse. It turns out you can, on about the 7th try. Needless to say, after the 6th try, everyone was trying to remember exactly how much road we had left behind us...

Entonces, Pura Vida amigos!

lunes, 14 de febrero de 2011

It's not the most dangerous thing I've ever done, but...

So, I'm a week late in writing this entry, but I have to file an update about our latest adventure: To Montezuma last weekend.

Montezuma is a cute little beach town on the Pacific Coast about 3 hours from Ciudad Colon. It's also known as Monte-fuma...I'll let you guess why...but nevertheless the laid back hippie vibe runs thick through the town. Drum circles, guitar players, sarongs and even a grass skirt or two mix in with a fairly normal looking group of tourists and ticos who call Montezuma home, or at least home away from home.

The cast of characters from this weekend was rich and hilarious:

The Maestro: Aka, the town drunk who greeted us with a t-shirt wrapped on his head as he strolled the street with a bottle of cacique (a Costa Rican liquor that is guaranteed to cause bad decisions). Shortly after making his first appearance, he lept onto the hood of a passive car in an apparent ninja move and was then thrown off of said hood. It's ok, he landed in the street without spilling a drop of his drink.

Machete Bob: Not sure what this guy's deal was, but he appeared in the street late at night wielding two machetes and doing some serious samurai moves. The best part was that no one from the town was remotely phased by someone walking down the street in a manner such as this. One of the folks from town walked over calmly to him and after a few minutes of cajoling, the machetes were traded for a beer and Bob went on his way. I'd imagine the conversation went something like this: "Bob, we've talked about this, please stop scaring the nice tourists...Bob, Boooooobbbbbb...WHOA Bob!"

Anyway the rest of the weekend involved plenty of beach time. Montezuma is definitely a town I'd recommend visiting if you make it down to CR!

lunes, 31 de enero de 2011

The Gym

And now for a shot at actually meeting some Ticos. Well, that and taking the holiday pounds off. (In the land of perpetual summer, it is exceptionally poor form to be out of shape.)

Actually as a general athletic comment, I'm impressed by what physically active people Ticos generally are. Joggers are everywhere, there are several running clubs in town and I've seen road and mountain bikes that would put even the average Boulderite to shame. Just for one anecdote about the general athleticism of the group, the Mikes, Dylan and I were climbing up one of the mountains behind Colon a couple of weeks ago. About 2-3 miles and 1000 feet of elevation gain. As we were slowly slogging up, a mountain biker came up behind us and passed us, hauling it and not in a low gear either. It was pure quadriceps. As long as he was in sight of us, he didn't miss a beat. I know I was impressed.

But, back to the Diana Gym here in town. In addition to the fact that at least several of the folks I've seen there definitely bat for the fabulous team (in the words of Jon Stewart, we are a gym going people after all) but what I like even more is the music selection. Turns out Lady Gaga is just getting big down here...I heard at least 3 Lady Gaga songs today, none of which were chosen by me. Generally the music selection is from 3-5 years ago, but hey, it's all fun.

lunes, 24 de enero de 2011

It's like a state fair...on speed.

That's how Ellen described Palmares at least.

Palmares was one of the more interesting experiences I've had since I've been on Tico time. It's the Costa Rican national fair, which is like most of the state and county fairs you've been to in the US except take away the livestock (except for the bull fighting) and add an extraordinary amount of alcohol and other Central American party favors. There were tons of vendors selling everything from cowboy hats to Justin Bieber CDs to pot paraphernalia. There was also magnificent food (and by magnificent, I mean cheap and unhealthy but still quite delicious).

Really the most impressive part was the way that it was state fair by day, giant raging party by night. There were three clubs erected in the middle of the fairground, made basically out of scaffolding and plywood, that thousands of people filled at night. I'll admit, being on the third story of one of these scaffolding structures was a bit terrifying - if you stopped dancing for a second you could feel the entire structure shaking in time to the music. Fortunately it stayed together as long as I was inside.

But, I think the funniest part of the entire experience was the fact that I apparently was a fair attraction as well. I was definitely one of the tallest people there (I had a great view on the dance floor) and a number of random people asked to get there picture taken with me. Apparently I just look overwhelmingly American...

Sadly I don't have any pictures to share of this particular experience - Palmares is notorious for pickpockets, especially targeting gringos. While no one in our group experienced any problems (and were all overly cautious about tucking money in places that it would be exceedingly hard to get at) I still thought it best not to risk losing anything valuable. But if you want to see general photos from the event and see more what it's about, go to http://www.fiestaspalmares.com

lunes, 17 de enero de 2011

Now that's a knife.

Today, the Mikes and I decided to clear a trail up to the overlook above UPeace. The experience itself was one of the most manly things I have done in a while - I mean let's be real, it doesn't get much manlier than using machetes to chop things.

What amazed me more than anything was that when we went to the maintenance shop to get them, we weren't asked to provide identification, or asked why we wanted machetes, or asked whether we had any idea what we were doing. We were just asked "how many" and "do you want the big ones?" - with encouragement to go with the larger ones.

We of course went with the big ones (24" I believe) because we wouldn't want anyone to question our manhood.

sábado, 15 de enero de 2011

The first week at 9 degrees north

Sorry for the delay in a new post, lots has been going on so hopefully I don't ramble too much...

Week one flew by, as I suppose I should have guessed it would. Orientation at UPeace has come and gone, a few hikes have been had, a few adventures and educational experiences have transpired and overall I think I'm converting to "tico time" pretty well. I still lack both a watch and a cell phone, though I feel that the watch situation may need to be remedied at some point. (Though, "que hora es?" is one of the Spanish phrases I have mastered.)

I look forward to UPeace a great deal though. Every morning will start something like this:

But even after having coffee in a beautiful place, the program and people at UPeace are great. Unlike at American, we've really been welcomed on the red carpet. We had a lovely reception, at which I got to talk to our program coordinator about my substantive research project (I'm thinking of working on something related either to ecotourism and environmental attitudes or coastal development.)

But, in our relaxed first week, we've continued to take advantage of being in Costa Rica to do some hikes that are recommended by the guide books, and some that apparently don't have maps associated with them. First, we visiting the obligatory coffee plantation:

It was a bit touristy, but they had a fantastic coffee shop there. At least I know where everyone's coffee care packages will be coming from now...

The coffee stop was on the way to Poas Volcanom which I hate to say, was a bit disappointing. The hike was pretty short over a paved trail and apparently it is pretty hard to find a clear shot this time of year of the crater. Perhaps we should have done our homework a bit better to find out a good time to see it but once again, slightly mislead by a guide book. Here we are at the top anyway:

But, fortunately for us, there was a sign telling us we were close:

Interesting thing about the central valley of Costa Rica - the altitude here is approaching that of Denver. Something that is easy to forget when you're surrounded by tropical flora and fauna, but, when you go on a jog or something like that you remember that there still is in fact less oxygen.

Anyway, after a fairly unimpressive Poas hike (though I mean, you can google it, the crater is spectacular) we decided to do something ridiculously American (and chauvinistic) and went to Hooters. For the wings, you know.

Anyway, this morning, we hiked up one of the mountains surrounding Ciudad Colon, on the other side of the valley from UPeace. It was a great morning, about 2 miles each way with a thousand feet of elevation change. Nothing to brag about but a nice morning jaunt:

Along the way we stopped at a coffee plantation:

Kind of cool to see them pre roasting.

Anyway, that was this week, hope all is well wherever you find yourself!

martes, 11 de enero de 2011

The Simple Life

Today is the last day of relaxing and enjoying Ciudad Colon before we actually are forced to have responsibilities (not that I even remotely mind being "forced" to go to a stunningly beautiful campus and meet interesting people from around the world). But, as Nik and I were discussing last night, coming down here has been a great reminder of how nice it is to slow down.

I have no cell phone, and might keep it that way. I don't think I realized how much stress the crackberry adds to life, constantly seeing emails come in, texts, etc. Now, I can check email a couple of times a day and still be completely adequately plugged in to the rest of the world.

How long will this no cell phone resolve last? I mean let's be honest, probably until my Spanish gets good enough for me to successfully execute the purchase of a disposable one. (And I'm amazed at how quickly it is coming along, I'm far from intense political debates, but I can manage a lot of daily life pretty competently. The main challenge is not mixing with French which I have been doing a lot (especially with numbers for some reason).)

But, hopefully I'll maintain some of my simple life throughout the semester.

lunes, 10 de enero de 2011

A Day of Learning

No, school hasn't started, but life in Costa Rica was exceptionally educational today. I learned (and in some cases, re-learned) a number of good life lessons. Some of the lessons included:

1. As in Denver and the rockies, the weather in Ciudad Colon bears no resemblance whatsoever to the weather in the mountains.

2. Rain gear is useless when hanging in your closet.

3. Medical kits are also useless when sitting in your closet.

4. Guide books are not always accurate.

However, the most important lessons taken from the day were:

5. Old Tico ladies are more than happy to teach a befuddled young gringo a few words of spanish on the bus, and also to try to set said gringo up with her grand daughters.

6. When working together, NRSD folks are fairly resourceful, and;

7. The rainforest is beautiful, check out some photos:

sábado, 8 de enero de 2011

Bienvenidos a Casa de Ballin

Good morning!

Turns out my bedroom window faces east, so I was up with the sun. Which was fine, given that I fell asleep at about 9:30 last night after a day of traveling. (But it's ok, I read a couple of chapters of Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry - a going away present from Lily! (thanks Lil!))

But, being up early was great, I went out on a run and explored my neighborhood. While I didn't carry a camera with me, I figured I'd post a few pictures of the new place, affectionately named "casa de ballin" by Bryan.

Check out some photos for a virtual tour:


La sala de estar y cocina (Living room and kitchen):

El jardin:

Mi dormitorio:

viernes, 7 de enero de 2011

New Beginnings

For me, 2010 was a year of transition. Leaving Denver, stopping in Delaware for a few months then going back to DC to get a start on my grad program at AU in Washington DC. The last few weeks have been the most hectic transition ever - between an apartment move out, a re sorting at home and then an international move - life has been hectic.

Fortunately, that hectic pace is already starting to feel a bit more relaxed. I arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica this afternoon and made my way (with the help of fellow UPeace student, Nora) to Ciudad Colon and ultimately my house. Other than a walk through Colon and a grocery store adventure, nothing much has happened.

That is, other than for me realizing that learning spanish is something I need to get on pronto.

I'll post occasional updates about my continuing adventure here. Please excuse any cultural insensitivity I may display, I am after all, a gringo.